Golly, Wally, that's one stunning stogie

An expert hopes to roll the world's longest cigar Saturday in Ybor City to bring attention to a threatened art.

By Alexandra Zayas
Published November 17, 2006

How do you roll a 100-foot cigar?

One piece at a time, says master cigarmaker Wally Reyes.

On Saturday,, the fifth-generation owner of the Gonzalez Habano Cigar Co. will attempt to break the Guinness record for the world's longest cigar.

The existing record is 66 feet, 111/8 inches, rolled in Havana last year. The one before that was 62 feet, 8 inches.

Reyes wants to smoke them all away.

He decided eight years ago to try to roll the world's longest cigar, but it has taken him this long to get the financial backing, the right venue and Guinness' attention.

Now he has all of that.

Several of Tampa's cigar families have agreed to financially back him, including the Oliva Cigar Co., which donated its best tobacco leaves and storage space to keep the leaves cool.

"We thought the record should be here in Tampa, not in Cuba," owner John Oliva Jr. said.

Six months ago, the founders of Cigar City Magazine invited Reyes to roll the cigar during the Cigar Heritage Festival at Centennial Park, in front of the magazine's office on 19th Street.

In August, the Guinness Book of World Records, which reviews about 65,000 record claims each year, agreed to send a judge from London to watch Reyes try to break the cigar record.

"I only get one shot," Reyes said.

Reyes, 53, has spent the past few months in his small West Tampa workshop crafting wooden molds to shape the cigar and a long table to lay out the cigar and fuse the pieces.

He and his wife, Margarita, also a master cigarmaker, have spent the past couple of weeks rolling 14-foot segments of the cigar, which they keep in a big wooden box.

"This is my baby," Reyes said, holding up a piece of the cigar.

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Reyes will connect his cigar pieces during the festival with the help of 10 student cigarmakers.

Then, the judge will inspect. The cigar has to have a head and a toe, and every segment, if cut, has to be smokeable. But no one will try to smoke the whole thing, Reyes said. "Your eyes will pop."

After the judging, Reyes will cut the cigar into 200 half-foot-long sections and sell them for $99 with a framed copy of the Guinness certificate. Half the money will benefit the Ybor City Museum Society, he said. The other half will benefit the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.

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Reyes rolled his first cigar when he was 14. He knew he was destined to be a master cigarmaker like his great-great-uncle, his great-uncle, his grandfather and his father.

When his family started the business in Puerto Rico 90 years ago, the cigar industry was bigger, more competitive and more secretive. Soon after, they opened an operation in Tampa.

Then cigarettes became popular. Many local cigarmakers moved their businesses to the Caribbean. But Reyes' family stayed in Tampa.

These days, cigarmakers like Reyes are a dying breed. He counts only seven handmade-cigar masters in Tampa.

"Every year we lose a cigarmaker," he said.

Oliva laments the reality: "As time goes on, in this country in particular, you're losing that tradition of making cigars, and everything starts to move offshore."

Even if Reyes doesn't break the record, he figures he'll at least give the industry exposure. And if he doesn't break it, he'll try again, he said.

In the meantime, he plans to continue teaching cigar rolling, a class he started last year at International Bazaar in Ybor City.

"If you don't teach, there will be no students, and if there are no students, the art will disappear," Reyes said.

Giving a class would have been unheard of in Tampa's cigar heyday, when masters guarded their secrets. They also would have scoffed at the notion of rolling a 100-foot cigar.

"They'd think I'm crazy," Reyes said.

Instead, he thinks he's making history.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com



The Cigar Heritage Festival

The event runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Centennial Park on Ninth Avenue between 18th and 19th streets in Ybor City. A representative from the Guinness Book of World Records will judge Reyes' cigar at 2:30 p.m. Admission is free, with a suggested donation for the Ybor City Museum Society. The cigar festival opens tonight from 6:30 to 10:30 with Cigars & Stars, a benefit for the Ybor City Museum State Park, 1818 E Ninth Ave. Tickets are $100. For more information, visit www.cigarcitymagazine.com and click on "Events" or call 875-4929.